Saturday, 28 March 2015

Blades make strides, more work ahead

The Blades bench during a stoppage in play.
    They finished last in WHL, but the 2014-15 season for the Saskatoon Blades can't be considered a write off.
    Still rebuilding from hosting the 2013 Memorial Cup and making a blockbuster trade to get Brayden Schenn for a run in the 2011 playoffs, the Blades were going to hard pressed to make the WHL playoffs. On ice, a modest goal would be to build on the 16-51-2-3 record the team posted in the 2013-14 campaign. They did better that mark in a modest fashion with a 19-49-2-2 finish.
    In the second season under the ownership of Edmonton product Mike Priestner and his management group, the team started to set more building blocks to steer the club back into the direction of being a contender and ensuring the Blades brand stays relevant in the community.
    The biggest sign of success came from the fact 8,929 people came to the Sasktel Centre to watch the Blades final regular season home game on March 20, which they lost 3-1 to the Medicine Hat Tigers. I know the cynics will say the only reason attendance was that high was due to the fact there was a guaranteed 50/50 pot set at $51,000, which saw spectators Ross Wiebe and Carly, his daughter, walk away with a prize of $67,207.50.
    Still, the fact was 8,929 came to watch a final regular season game, when the Blades had been playing out the string for about three weeks with no hope of making the playoffs.
Blades centre Wyatt Sloboshan battles for a draw.
    As a charter member of the WHL in 1966, the Blades have seen their share of excellent seasons and really bad campaigns. In past campaigns where the final regular season home game had no meaning due to the fact the Blades would miss the post-season, it was common for about 2,300 to attend that last game. Out of the 2,300 that came, it usually felt like half the crowd didn't really want to be there.
    That wasn't the case with the final regular season home game for this season. All you had to do was look into the stands, and you realized the 8,929 spectators in attendance wanted to be at the Sasktel Centre that night. There was a good atmosphere in the building.
    Besides having a strong draw for their final regular season home game, the Blades drew 6,718 spectators to their second last regular season home date on March 14, when they dropped a 3-1 decision to the Brandon Wheat Kings, who finished first overall in the WHL.
    Overall, the Blades averaged 4,563 spectators for their 36 home contests, which was a slight drop in average attendance from the 4,719 spectators that came to games in the 2013-14 regular season. Those numbers are still good for two non-playoff years.
    The Blades management and office staff put in a lot of ground work over the course of the season to engage the community, and those efforts appear to be paying off. Over the past eight years, Saskatoon proper has seen a population increase of about 50,000, so there is also an untapped base to go after.
The Blades break out of their own zone.
    It seemed like every game this season the Blades had some promotion going to make coming to the rink fun. One of the more enjoyable ones was likely a Las Vegas style kind of event they put on in January. Overall, it is starting to feel like the Sasktel Centre is the place to be again in Saskatoon on Blades game nights.
    The Blades also had a new head coach and general manager in Bob Woods this season and a new assistant coach in Dean Brockman. While the wins didn't pile up for a roster that was the youngest in the WHL, the work ethic of the players was there night in and night out. On most nights, the Blades players gave those that came out to see them perform an honest effort.
    They also appear to have been successful in setting up a good culture around the dressing room. While the setback stockpiled, players still wanted to be at the rink. Actually, a number of players the Blades traded away to stock up WHL Bantam Draft selections didn't actually want to leave.
    They wanted to stay in Saskatoon to help turn the team's fortunes around, but they also understood there is a business aspect to the league. If deals could be made to help the club in the future, they will be made.
    Junior hockey is the first level where players can feel the sting of the business side of the game. With that said, the Blades did their part to lessen the sting of that business blow.
The Blades celebrate a goal.
    That was shown on the night 18-year-old defenceman and local product Nelson Nogier made his return to the Bridge City. Nogier spent two-and-a-half seasons with the Blades, and he was the poster boy team player, who was huge in representing the club in the community. He was also the WHL's scholastic player of the year in 2013-14.
    He was dealt to the Rebels just before the Christmas break in a blockbuster trade.
    When he made his return to play in the Sasktel Centre on Feb. 18, the Blades honoured him in a pre-game ceremony. He was presented his old game jersey in a glass case, an amazing looking framed action photo, and he took the ceremonial faceoff.
    The ceremony sent a message to any player looking to join the Blades that they will always be respected, if they come in and give an honest effort. It makes players want to play for the Blades, and it makes parents hope their kids get to go play for the Blades.
    On the ice, the Blades appear to have some pieces of the puzzle in place. Netminders Nik Amundrud and Brock Hamm look like they could be a solid tandem, when they return as 18-year-old sophomores.
    Veteran defenceman Brycen Martin, who was picked up in trade with the Swift Current Broncos, is a solid part on the back end, and he has the ability to quarterback the power play. Yorkton product Jake Kustra played seven games as a 15-year-old call up, and he appears able to provide a spark.
    Up front, 17-year-old rookie Wyatt Sloboshan potted 10 goals and 21 assists in 49 regular season game for his hometown WHL club. He has some sound potential heading into his 18-year-old campaign.
The Blades salute the Sasktel Centre faithful
    Left-winger Nick Zajac is heading into his overage campaign and should provide some good leadership next season showing young players the ins and outs of the league.
    With all that said, the Blades were still last in the entire 22-team WHL. They scored the third fewest goals at 195, gave up the most goals against at 309 and finished with nine straight losses.
    The returning players have to work on their games and get stronger and faster physically. Woods also has to keep finding ways to keep improving the overall talent level.
    The Blades still have a lot more work to do in order to become an elite WHL club. If they keep following the current rebuilding blueprint they have drawn up, they should get rewarded in the long run.

    If you have any comments about this blog, feel free to email them to